TEXT: Maya Kramer
IMAGES: K11 Art Foundation
The K11 Art Foundation’s recent staging of four contiguous highly theatrical and yet utterly unrelated artist’s projects has created a cacophony of visions too disparate for a viewer to properly absorb. To further complicate the audience experience, two of the four works in the show, Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves (2010) and Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s piece My Epidemic (2015), were oddly allied with one another under curator Lu Mingjun’s exhibition title Irreversible Intrusion. Citing Isaac Julien’s “identity as a black man’ and Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s interest in ‘black-culture’ in the exhibition wall text, Lu premised his pairing on this problematic-at-best assumption. The introductory text later pinpointed an interest in social issues as a shared concern, yet, as such a broad thematic illuminated little it seemed prudent to abandon the show’s premise and consider each piece separately.
Since its debut in 2010, Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, has been showcased worldwide and has been shown in Shanghai alone on three separate occasions. This originally nine-channel, double-side screen film installation has been scaled down to three-panel projection for the space, and in its current iteration it looses some of its immersive grandeur. Julien’s impetus to create this visually arresting work was prompted by the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy, an agonizing true story of greed and human trafficking that resulted in the drowning of twenty three illegal Chinese clam pickers. Over the past thirty years, with over half of the roughly one million Fujianese immigrating to Europe through illegal channels, this type of story of abuse and death is all too common.
Julien typically collaborates with other artists for his films and this piece is no exception. For Ten Thousand Waves he worked array of China’s preeminent talent including: the actresses Maggie Cheung and Zhao Tao, the video artist Yang Fudong, the poet Wang Ping and the calligrapher Gong Fagen. In addition to the star power behind the piece, the film weaves together an ambitious number of narrative strands in an attempt to come to terms with the tragedy. Footage of Shanghai, past and present, is interspersed with Julien’s lush visual narratives about the Fujian sea goddess Mazu who guides sailors to safety, and his recreations of portions of The Goddess, a 1934 film set in Shanghai about a prostitute trapped by cruel circumstance. Yet for all of the ambition, resources and talent behind the piece, this work contains too many obscure and disparate references and an exaggerated romanticism that masks the urgent emotional tenor of the initial event. The most hair-raising moments in this nearly hour-long video are the recorded panicked calls to rescue authorities by those watching the tragedy unfold and the grainy black and white images of the survivors as spotted from the rescue helicopter. The beautifully rendered layers that Julien maps onto this calamity, to help explore and memorialize it, ultimately seem excessive, and the piece does not command the gravity the situation demands.
In contrast to Isaac Julien’s grandiose vision, Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s poignant installation work My Epidemic addresses the AIDS crisis in a manner that leaves the viewer feeling both vulnerable and empowered. Entering the installation one sees freestanding curtains printed with texts about AIDS, sexuality, identity etc., and simultaneously one hears a chorus of voices reciting the printed texts emanating from speakers amidst the curtains. Reynaud-Dewar culled these passages from various artists and activists addressing the effect of AIDS on society, people’s bodies and spirits. These writings, expressing vulnerability, fear, hope and defiance, bring to light the multi-layered reality of this ongoing epidemic:
AIDS is all of us/Not just yourself!/AIDS is now/Not just the past!…
Against the fears/Hope is nothing!/Hope is a joke!/Knowledge is all,….
When we make love/We talk about/The time before/Virus and fear….
The sense of risk and resilience in the piece is further heightened when one walks behind the curtains. On the backside of the drapes one encounters video screens depicting the artist nude, with a heightened pinkish tone to her skin, dancing, reading, exercising, smoking, and just being, amid lavish cultural spaces such as libraries and museums. The sight of a completely exposed and ordinary body stands in stark contrast to the formal, culturally authoritative nature of its surroundings. Reyaud-Dewar’s body, and its whimsical and everyday motion troubles its context. Through her exposé we sense the history, systems, rules, ideas and resources that go into creating institutions and can more easily feel how distant they are from the reality of our lives. With a simple gesture she asks us to consider how our constructs align with our humanity.
After viewing the exhibition it was clear that Reyaud-Dewar’s work was matched with the wrong Isaac Julien piece. Had My Epidemic been shown alongside Julien’s breakthrough film Looking for Langston (1989), the results would have been remarkable. Those two pieces beautifully and yet in completely divergent ways, engage some of the most urgent issues surrounding AIDS: desire, identity, sociological constructs and how the most intimate and subjective experiences are inexorably linked to the political sphere. While seeing this show was worthwhile for Reynaud-Dewar’s piece alone, one can’t help but be a bit disappointed by the thought of what could have been.
Maya Kramer is an artist, an independent art writer and arts project coordinator. She was based in New York City for nine years during which time she worked in the curatorial department of the Guggenheim Museum and for private collectors. In 2010 she moved to Shanghai, and has since exhibited internationally in conjunction with institutions such the Hong Kong Arts Centre (Hong Kong) and the Van Abbe Museum (Eindhoven, Holland) among others. She is the recipient of the Jacob Javits Fellowship, her works have been featured in media such as Fortune Art, Randian and Blouin Art Info, and she has written for The Shanghai Gallery of Art, Artlink, and Bank Gallery. She currently lives and works in Shanghai, China.